You know that feeling you get when you're at dinner with friends -- or maybe it's someone you're just getting to know -- and excited talk of great books or new movies carries on long past the scrounging up of your meal's last crumbs?
In Spanish, it's called sobremesa, but in English there's no direct translation. It's a little like eagerness, a little like a comforting exhale, but Americans are likely to equate it to something broader: happiness.
A recent study in The Journal of Positive Psychology revealed that, relative to other languages, English is starved for emotionally positive words, relying instead on one big descriptor to articulate everything from simple pleasures to the glee experienced when the workday ends.
The problem with letting happiness do all of our verbal dealings is that, according to some psychologists, the experience of a feeling is often understood through the words we use to describe it. So, if our language lacks a specific word, we're less likely to experience the specific feeling attached to it.
This is a pretty good case for expanding our vocabularies beyond a single catchall adjective. Not only could we derive more pleasure from activities like the Norwegian utepils ("drinking beer outside on a hot day"), but we might be less likely to appraise the ups and downs of most long-term relationships on such a restrictive scheme: happy versus unhappy.
“English is starved for emotionally positive words, relying instead on one big descriptor to articulate everything from simple pleasures to the glee experienced when the workday ends.”
The first time I fell in love, I wasn’t happy. Not exactly.
I was sitting on the floor of a friend’s dorm room talking with unjustified assertiveness about the likely outcome of the 2008 Republican primaries when I was interrupted by a brazen neighbor. Overhearing me, he butted in to praise Mike Huckabee. A Hillary supporter, I was appalled.
I did notice, however, that he wore his blonde hair in these greasy, unwashed tufts that contradicted his fashion choices, which were literally straight-laced and buttoned-up. I was intrigued.
When everyone else on our floor spent Mondays guzzling cans of Lone Star while watching “Flavor of Love,” he stayed holed up behind his desk studying differential equations. I asked him to explain his homework to me; he laughed and told me that it’d probably be lost on a “word person,” but he could try. I was intimidated.
Slowly I learned through these wild formulas that arriving at a specific conclusion isn’t always the point; a problem can be both messy and complete. That a question could have multiple answers, or no answer at all, pushed against my comfortable ideas about the world. But I was determined, because I was smitten.
When he agreed to a lunch date, a skipped class, a camping trip, I was flattered. When we spent stretches of long, lazy Saturdays swimming in a shadowy, private spot on Town Lake, I felt giddy. When we moved my books and his messy stacks of hoarded papers into an apartment off campus, I felt hopeful, much to the chagrin of my “word person” friends. When those friends asserted that he was pompous and awkward, I was defensive, but when I stopped seeing them as much, I was regretful. What was all of this for? Was I even happy?
Influenced by the binary proliferated by concerned mothers and self-help shelves everywhere, I set out to place my first, messy relationship into one of two neat columns: happy or unhappy.
This supposed act of self-betterment only muddied things further. Was the feeling I got after resolving an unnecessary quarrel happiness? What about the delightful air of mystery that hung around the kitchen table at 2 a.m. when we sat together, silently scribbling away at separate problems? That was something; independence without loneliness.
But without a word for the feeling, it was less valuable to me than those I was able to describe pithily.
I was, of course, very young. But the conundrum exists in the language we use to describe adult relationships, too. Psychologists don’t agree on whether the words we use determine our feelings or vice versa, but when certain negative adjectives are prominent (fulfilled, trapped, noncommittal), while others are nonexistent, it’s easy to see how a person would shepherd her emotions into a preexisting descriptor, like happy.
The problem arises when the same nebulous word is used to describe both rare moments of euphoria and the kind of sustained feeling of satiation we're told to strive for. Happiness can come from physical fitness, goal fulfillment, spontaneity, and myriad other things, but ideally all of them concurrently. That’s a heavy load for a single word, or a single relationship, to bear.
In addition to being maddeningly vague, happy is somehow also too specific. It serves to appraise, to judge, to determine whether a state of mind and the circumstances contributing to it are good or bad. This won’t do to summarize the complexities of an individual, let alone the meeting and bonding of two, over any amount of time other than a lovely, powerful instant -- like a first kiss.
So why do so many people -- Americans in particular, it seems -- keep returning to the incomprehensible pursuit of happiness, rather than redefining their emotions in lovelier, or at least more appropriate, terms?
According to The Journal of Positive Psychology study, it might be because we simply don’t have the right words at our disposal. Aiming to “enrich our emotional landscape,” the authors compiled 216 words with no direct English translation. All positive, they describe relationships, feelings and character in specific ways that English just can’t.
A survey of the happiness-related words reveals that while the feeling is framed in English as a goal to strive for, most other languages relate happiness to luck, and uncontrollable good fortune. Moreover, greater nuance is applied to the experience of happiness in many other languages; linguistically, its a colorful, multi-faceted spectrum. In German and Spanish, the pleasure derived from food is distinct from emotional satisfaction. In Thai, sabsung “signifies being revitalized through something that livens up one’s life”; In Balinese, ramé describes “something at once chaotic and joyful.”
Had these words been at my disposal, I might’ve stopped trying to describe my first, messy relationship using dull, insufficient terms. Or, had I really listened during my (limited) math lessons, I would’ve recognized years ago that if happiness is “x,” “x” doesn’t always have an inherent value, a unique solution. Sometimes, the outside variables to consider are infinite.
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